Given that 2020 turned out to be somewhat of a lost year across the board, music was no exception. A year where musicians couldn’t convene in studios, where fans couldn’t support new albums by attending shows, 2020 did see a few highlights, but they were generally either albums created before the pandemic like the resonant Plastic Bouquet, an in-person cross-hemispheric collaboration between Canadians Kacy & Clayton and New Zealander Marlon Williams (sublime), or McCartney III, the highly anticipated one-man-band effort by the stalwart and ever-endearing ex-Beatle (not half-bad).
At any rate, I’ve been looking backward all through the pandemic, doing a lot of writing, listening, and thinking about music, something I’m prone to do anyway but never more so than now. One quarantined evening, while listening to my $1 copy of John Barleycorn Must Die (the cover of which some teenager scribbled on with ball-point pen back in 1970, but whose vinyl was left pristine), it struck me how many of my favorite rock albums were released in that transitional year in music. I started compiling a playlist and it became a fun diving expedition, working first from memory, then from looking at my record collection, then consulting record guides, and finally Wikipedia. I think I’ve come up with a very listenable collection that isn’t all deep cuts but sidesteps some obvious, overplayed choices (“Layla,” “Mississippi Queen, “Bridge Over Troubled Water”) for songs we music lovers might still want to hear again. Included too are cuts from some landmark soul albums (1970 saw the release of Curtis Mayfield’s solo debut, the civil rights manifesto, Curtis, a political statement that would inspire so many to follow suit, namely Marvin Gaye with his What’s Going On album from the following year), and something from Bitches Brew, the Miles Davis electric outing that signaled a major sea change in jazz. There’s folk and country stuff in there too, as well as English folk, acoustic (Forthingay) and electric (Fairport Convention), and even some dreaded “easy listening” fare, but granted, usually pretty rockin’ offerings from those more middle of the road artists (including Barbara Streisand’s muscular reading of my favorite Laura Nyro song, “Stoney End”, a crossover pop hit for her in 1970 and a personal favorite of mine). It was a year that rock infected or at least inflected most everything.
So, in a burst of industrious laziness, rather than pore over the breadth of 2020’s musical offerings (leaving that to other more daring adventurers), I took a narrow but thorough look back. Road-testing this playlist when it was half-completed was a fun drive; if you’re a rock fan with a taste for country, soul, jazz, and beyond, I think you’ll enjoy this extensive playlist of almost 300 tracks from one year in music, 1970, presented for your shuffling pleasure.
By the way, you don’t need to listen via the app — Spotify has an online player that utilizes any browser and you can listen to the 1970 playlist via this link. You’ll have to sign up for a free account or sign in, but once you do you can add my playlist to your own library via the [ ••• ] pop-up menu near the top of the page.
1970 was a transitional year in music, an incredibly rich one. Miles Davis moved into rock-fueled funk territory with Bitches Brew. Simon and Garfunkel offered up their final album with Bridge Over Troubled Water. Jimi Hendrix formed a funky new trio and released a live album under the name of his new group, Band of Gypsys. The Beatles broke up but not before issuing the “warts and all” (as Lennon put it) document, Let It Be, and 1970 also saw solo album releases by all four Beatles, two of them undisputed masterpieces and also McCartney which was half-bad but featured “Maybe I’m Amazed,” perhaps the single best post-Beatles song made by any of them.
It was the year when Elton John broke out with “Your Song” and followed his self-titled debut album with the beloved Old West-themed Tumbleweed Connection later that same year. A memorable year when folky singer-songwriters grabbed of the zeitgeist with James Tayor’s Sweet Baby James and Cat Stevens’ Tea for the Tillerman leading the way. Neil Young moved to Topanga and hit his stride with After the Goldrush, but also teamed up with CSN to create their best album, Déjà vu. The Grateful Dead finally conquered the recording studio with their two pared-down masterworks, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty in 1970, and even Led Zep seemed to get the memo, releasing Led Zeppelin III, an album dominated by acoustic sounds, forgoing their usual bravado for more intimate fare.
But 1970 was also the year that brought the world Black Sabbath, first with their bluesy self-titled debut and later that year, their bruising behemoth, Paranoid. A tremendous album that was roundly hated by critics and adored by fans, Ozzy and the band found themselves mid-October 1970 at #1 with Paranoid pushing out Simon and Garfunkel’s Bridge album for the top slot of the UK Albums chart. In true rock critic fashion, all of the early Sabbath albums have lately undergone a complete critical reassessment, along with Led Zeppelin, another genius heavy rock band that was completely ravaged by the critics at the time. Also defying the trend toward domestication were Iggy and the Stooges, releasing Fun House in 1970, an album that saw them turning up the volume and the chaos, a move that made them simultaneously pariahs and heroes, depending on who you asked. And another proto-punk outfit from Detroit, the MC5 released Back In the USA, providing a good blueprint for the sped-up 50s-inspired mayhem The Ramones would wreak later in the decade.
Fanny, the first all-female rock band to achieve chart success arrived in 1970 with producer Richard Perry producing and lending them a shined-up commercial sound they probably didn’t need. Joni Mitchell released her first jaw-dropper in 1970, the stunning Ladies of the Canyon, an album which included “Woodstock” which became a chart hit, first for CSNY in May of that year and later for the band Matthews Southern Comfort (Joni’s own “Big Yellow Taxi” reached #11 on the UK Singles chart in June, her first hit as a recording artist), while Carole King started revving her engines with Writer, a precursor to her breakout Tapestry album that would come in 1971. Aretha Franklin continued her stunning run of gutsy soul music on the Atlantic label with Spirit In the Dark, and Dionne Warwick kept up her string of Burt Bacharach-Hal David hits with “I’ll Never Fall In Love Again.”
If you study album credits, you’ll see the same group of names cropping up over and over again on 1970 rock albums — Leon Russell, Delaney Bramlett, Carl Radle, Jim Gordon, Bobby Whitlock, Jim Price, Bobby Keys — factions of which provided the core band that toured with Joe Cocker resulting in the Mad Dogs and Englishmen album also backed George Harrison on his masterpiece, All Things Must Pass, played behind ex-Traffic member Dave Mason on his Alone Together solo outing, supported Eric Clapton on his first self-titled solo album, and collaborated with him along with Duane Allman in the Derek and the Dominos band to create the superb Layla and Assorted Love Songs double album, and also can be heard on Delaney & Bonnie’s 1970 rousing live album On Tour with Clapton, as well as Leon Russell’s own self-titled debut album, all of these magnificent artifacts of that peak year in homespun rock.
Also at their peak in 1970 were the New Orleans funk outfit, The Meters, who were the backing band for Allen Toussaint’s productions including Lee Dorsey’s on 1970’s Yes We Can, while also releasing the mostly-instrumental Look-Ky-Pi-Pi and Struttin’ under their own name. Santana scored a big hit and a major step forward with Abraxas, and Van Morrison released Moondance, his best album, following it with one almost as good in His Band and the Street Choir. Randy Newman broke through with his own 12 Songs album, a big hit with Three Dog Night with their version of “Mama Told Me Not to Come,” an appearance on the soundtrack for the Mick Jagger vehicle Performance (the raucous “Long Dead Train” backed by Ry Cooder), and also Nilsson Sings Newman, a tribute album of his material by Harry Nilsson who also released his own eminently charming The Point album and TV special in 1970. The Rolling Stones didn’t have a studio release in 1970, putting out the best live album of their career, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out instead.
1970 was also a transitional year in progressive rock with the English bands still half in the psychedelic era that was the genre’s precursor. Syd Barrett left Pink Floyd with only half of his mind intact, creating two volumes of strange but fascinating relics The Madcap Laughs and Barrett, with the band releasing Atom Heart Mother, their first foray into the symphonic rock that would come to define the prog movement, while also creating tracks for the throwaway Zabriskie Point hippie movie, film music proving to be one of Pink Floyd’s most natural habitats. Also from the early prog scene in England, Soft Machine produced their most enduring work, the Third album, and Caravan, Gentle Giant, Genesis, and Hawkwind all either debuting in 1970 or upping their game. Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood (later of ELO) produced Shazam, their best album with their psychedelic pop band, The Move, The Pretty Things released their outstanding Parachute album in 1970, Barclay James Harvest led off their first album with the appealing, atypically buoyant “Taking Some Time On,” while Emerson, Lake, and Palmer and King Crimson would produce major works in 1970, ELP’s self-titled debut and Crimson’s excellent two follow-ups to their groundbreaking debut would come that year.
Stateside, Frank Zappa, having broken up The Mothers Of Invention released their two swan song retrospectives, Burnt Weeny Sandwich and Weasels Ripped My Flesh in 1970, both worthy testaments to the talent, dedication, and creativity of that original lineup. Chicago and guitar virtuoso Terry Kath continued their run of jazz-rock crossover albums with Chicago II, and The Band capped their initial run of what would become known as Americana albums with their third, the somewhat jittery, aptly named Stage Fright.
Traffic released their best work in 1970. Reduced to a trio after the departure of Dave Mason, multi-instrumentalist soul singer Steve Winwood, reedman Chris Wood, and drummer Jim Capaldi produced a contender for the best album of this outstanding year in the jazz/funk-inflected John Barleycorn Must Die. Though it wasn’t their most fertile period, 1970 saw the reunion of the feuding brothers Gibb with 2 years On, and a top ten hit in “Lonely Days” for The Bee Gees. And let’s not forget that 1970 was the year that The Who released what a lot of people contend is the greatest live album in rock, their thundering Live at Leeds.
Finally, Bob Dylan tried to throw his fans off the scent by releasing the self-effacing perplexing country crooner Self-Portrait double album of mostly covers, but followed it up within three months with New Morning, one of his most enduring works, full of the signs of life that the resident poet of rock was still engaged and having fun creating more of the songs that would define a generation, perhaps a little more bucolic and domesticated, but that was emblematic of the shifting times in that signal year after Woodstock.
Songs from all of these works I mention and more appear in the playlist. These are my humble choices — all just jumping-off points, so click either the album title to listen to any of these full albums or the artist name to explore the depths of their catalogs beyond this single extraordinary year.
I created this 1970 playlist for my own listening pleasure once I connected the dots on what a great year for music it proved to be. I never cease to be fascinated at the musical richness of the decade of the 1970s, not just in rock, but across the board, and if you were lucky enough to be born in time to hear 1970s radio, even on the AM band, it was an experience to build a lifelong love of music upon. I was only six years old in 1970, but 1971 was my first year of day camp and those summer’s one-hour (each way) commutes to and from Camp Thunderbird with the AM radio of that bus fixed on the legendary CKLW is certainly where my love of 70s music started (CKLW-AM out of Windsor, Canada was a vanguard flagship station, shuffling an eclectic rotation of 80 to 100 hand-picked songs instead of the normal Top 40 fare). I love music from every era reaching back beyond the Baroque Era and up until today, but 70s music has a special place in my heart, and it all starts here.
This 1970 playlist was a joy to research and complete — I hope you’ll add it to your Spotify library. A cup of kindness to you all — I’m thinking ‘21 is gonna be a good year.